Watching the Wheels: September 2022

by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

Radical or Innovative?

Eric Cherry has ideas for putting more horses in the entry box

 

Let’s talk some more about the horse shortage in harness racing today, which might also be called an entry shortage, which could be related to an owner shortage. It’s complicated.

I phoned Murray Brown, the dual (United States and Canada) Hall of Famer best known for his 50-plus-year tenure at Hanover Shoe Farms and as the general manager/vice president of Standardbred Horse Sales Co., to inquire if those elements might be connected. Murray has witnessed first-hand the ebbs and flows of the business through the past six decades or so and made a career out of knowing how to market and sell Standardbred racehorses.

“I think they are,” he said. “You see a lot more partnerships buying horses at the sales now. It used to be that owners bid against each other. Now, especially at the higher end, it’s not uncommon to see them partner together to get a horse they want.”

That makes sense to me, and suggests, at least partially, why some barns have grown exponentially over the past decade or so while smaller ones have receded. If buyers are combining to acquire horses, they’re likely sending them to the same people to train.

There is nothing wrong or illegal about that—it’s business, after all, and these trainers are undoubtedly very good at what they do—but it does consolidate entry power. Trainers are obligated to maximize the earning potential of their charges, and this often takes the form of, as the old maxim goes, finding the best company for themselves and the worst for their horses.

A trainer’s primary goal is not to ensure competitive wagering contests for horseplayers, nor is it to compete against their own best interests. A trainer, of course, is also a businessperson.

 

So, what can be done to increase the foal crop and encourage starts? Another businessman, Eric Cherry, has a few ideas.

Cherry, the longtime owner/breeder and serial entrepreneur who estimates that he owns “somewhere between 350 to 375 horses right now, I’m not sure,” said that the industry needs to incentivize small breeders. His plan? Create a national, third-tier sire stakes program that would be open to the foals of sires standing for a stud fee of $2,500 or less.

There would be no nomination fees, only a nominal starting fee of $100 or $200 per horse. Each pari-mutuel track in the United States would participate on a yearly or biannual basis. Entry-level conditions would be the rule, not the exception, and the series final would offer a purse equivalent to whatever an open or invitational goes for at that venue.

“I mentioned this idea at the USTA breeding summit in the summer of 2015, and it didn’t receive much support,” Cherry said. “But it makes sense. Economic viability drives behavior, and right now, it’s not economically viable to breed cheap yearlings or buy cheap yearlings. But what if there was a place for them? And the best part is, it’s easy to do. No USTA rule would be needed. Race secretaries could just write the conditions themselves.”

 

Cherry mentioned another point he made at the breeding summit seven years ago, one that was echoed by others in attendance.

“Yearling buyers need to be able to have a chance to recoup at least part of their investment as soon as possible,” he said. “Purses for ‘non-winners of one’ and ‘non-winners of two’ races should be significant, and definitely higher than they are right now. Give the owners a shot. I even like the idea of ‘winner take all’ races for maidens, with the purse again at the same level as an open.”

There’s more. USTA rules limit mares to one foal per year, despite the ability, via embryo transfer, to reproduce more than once every 11 to 12 months. If Cherry had his way, that restriction would be lifted.

“Why not? Years ago, nature limited mares to one foal per year. Now, science (and recipient mares) allows that to happen,” he said. “You could promote diversity and give lesser-known sires more opportunities by stipulating that no mare be bred to the same sire twice in one year.

“And maybe we have two breeding seasons per year, the traditional one from January through June, and a second one from July through December. If we don’t change the trajectory, there will be fewer horses each year.”

It has been pointed out to Cherry that a few of his ideas could be viewed in certain circles as radical. Some would require approval by the majority of the USTA board of directors after going through the full rule change proposal process. That might be seen as a heavy lift. He understands but said he is undeterred.

“People say things can’t happen until they do,” he said. “And then that becomes the new norm.”

 

Mike Tanner

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